SALT LAKE CITY — Utah education officials are aiming high this year to continue prioritizing education funding on Capitol Hill.
The Utah State Board of Education on Monday announced its priorities for the 2019 legislative session — along with several massive asks for funding — amid a year the state is seeing more than $1 billion in budget surplus.
Among the board's top asks: About $176 million to increase the value of the weighted pupil unit to 5.5 percent. The WPU is the basic building block of per-pupil education funding.
"This is money that allows for the greatest spending flexibility for districts and charter schools," said Mark Huntsman, the State School Board's chairman. "Local boards and charters can put this money to its best use by focusing on individual student needs, which can be as varied as Utah's geography."
The 5.5 percent increase is more than a full percent above what Gov. Gary Herbert proposed in his budget recommendation, which included $127 million for a 4 percent increase.
The board is also asking for millions more to increase school safety, during a time when fear of mass shootings have been at an all-time high across the U.S.
The board's asks include $30.6 million in ongoing funding and $65 million in one-time funding to promote "safe and healthy schools" by increasing access to resources to meet students' mental, emotional and social needs, Huntsman said.
"We've all become more concerned about school safety in recent years. Students need to feel safe in school to focus on learning and parents need to know that their children are safe in Utah public schools," Huntsman said.
The Utah State Board of Education's plan for the money includes developing and adopting uniform guidelines for school safety plans and protocols, as well as promoting evidence-based student health and wellness practices, according to school board materials provided at Monday's news conference at the Utah Capitol.
Additionally, Huntsman said the school board is requesting $17.2 million in one-time money to revamp the state's outdated information management system, which would be spread over three to five years.
"Our school data system has been held together for too long with the digital equivalency of chewing gum and baling wire," Huntsman said. "It is time to modernize and consolidate to enable real-time access to data to inform school leader and school teacher decision-making at all levels."
Those three requests make up the school board's "biggest asks" this year, Huntsman said.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said education leaders will work with lawmakers to maximize funding for education, which she called a top priority for many Utah families.
"Our fellow citizens put education in the same category as air and water," she said. "Education is not just a priority, it's a necessity for our future."4 comments on this story
The Utah State Board of Education's asks may come during a year of budget surplus, but also during a time when lawmakers and Herbert aretrying to restructure the state's tax base, while also achieving a more than $200 million net tax cut.
Dickson called on Utahns to urge their lawmakers to also prioritize education funding.
"Utah public schools are full of pockets of promise, but the right resources are needed to ensure students get the best start," she said. "Our students are counting on us to do this."